Photo taken by me at the 2016 New Year Countdown at Marina Bay Singapore
Among the People’s Action Party (PAP) supporters are people who subscribe to the PAP’s ideology of “self-reliance”. Among some opposition supporters are people who believe in “equality” and who want to see the system improved to protect a larger swath of the population.
(If you do not know, the PAP – Singapore’s ruling party for more than 50 years – had in its constitution abolishing inequality as a value when it first began but removed this and replaced it with the concept of “self-reliance” in 1982.)
In wanting people to be “self-reliant”, the PAP government started to reduce government health expenditure in 1984. It introduced Medisave at the same time to get people to pay from their Central Provident Fund (CPF) pension fund into a form of health insurance – to get people to “self-rely” on themselves for their healthcare needs.
However, you would assume that if the PAP wants people to be “self-reliant”, it would also increase the CPF interest rates to allow people to save more, so that they can “self-rely” on their savings for retirement (instead of on the state). But this did not happen. Instead, from 1986, the CPF interest rates started dropping until 1999, when it became only 2.5% to 4% and had stayed at that low since.
Not only are many elderly Singaporeans unable to accumulate enough to “self-rely” on themselves to retire today, this also means that the CPF component which goes into Medisave grows slower as well, making it more difficult for people to save enough and to “self-rely” on themselves for Healthcare, having to pay tens and thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for hospital bills.
Weirdly too, the PAP started inflating university fees by increasing fees by as much as 400% in a few years from 1986 and in 1987, it started including land costs into HDB public housing flat prices, thereby jacking up prices.
But all these could have been reasonably dealt with, if wages increase as well, so as to offset the increasing prices. However, wages started to be depressed since the 1990s, first for the low-income and from the 2000s, for the middle-income as well.
If the PAP so believes in “self-reliance”, all these policy manoeuvres would instead make it more difficult for Singaporeans to “self-rely” on themselves, wouldn’t it?
For “self-reliance” to take place, you would expect that people should be paid adequately, so that they could then “self-rely” on themselves to pay for their own healthcare, education, retirement and so on. Instead, wages were depressed and prices on these increased – which in turn makes it difficult for people to be “self-reliant”.
Today, Singaporeans pay the most out of their own pockets for healthcare in the world (purchasing power parity) and pay for one of the most expensive university fees and housing prices while having one of the least adequate retirement funds in the world. Low-income Singaporeans also earn the lowest wages among the rich countries (Portugal upwards) while the highest-income earn the most, and Singapore is still one of very few countries in the world without minimum wage and unemployment benefits and have the least adequate employment protection legislation among the developed countries, after America.
And which is also why poverty has risen to as high an estimate as 35% today – the government still refuses to define an official poverty line.
But for the supporters of the PAP who have bought into the PAP’s ideology, they have bought into the belief that ‘I should rely on myself. I should not rely on the government.’ Some of them look at the rest and wonder – why do you guys want the government to do more to help Singaporeans, why can’t you rely on yourself?
There is no right or wrong to the different mindsets. For those who subscribe to “self-reliance”, they believe they have to fight for themselves. So perhaps from young, they would fight to do ‘better’ than the other person, to score ‘better’, to get ahead, to go to a ‘better’ class, a ‘better’ stream, a ‘better’ school. Eventually, they might want to get a ‘better’ job, ‘better’ pay, a ‘better’ career and ‘better’ reputation, perhaps.
Again, no right or wrong to this. My main bugbear though is that in trying to do ‘better’ than the other person, this means that someone else has to be left behind or pushed back. In a country like Singapore (or how it has developed politically), there is only a small basket of things that can be shared by those who can become ‘better’ and be seen as to have ‘made it’.
There are not that many ‘better’ jobs which pay ‘better’ salaries. So you really have to fight to get to the ‘top’, in that sense.
Of course, things did not naturally become like this. The PAP government made a policy decision to restrict the percentage who can go to university. The PAP government also rigged the pay of graduates from the different levels – university, polytechnic, ITE and so on – at fixed levels, with the artificial pegs to the Employment Pass, S Pass and work permit respectively. (It is also widely believed that children of the elite class are also given preferential treatment in the education and work system).
These inequalities therefore means that if you do not get to the ‘top’, not only do you not ‘make it’, you simply cannot earn enough. And the consequence of that? – You cannot be “self-reliant”.
Therefore, this concept of “self-reliance” can be unhealthy. But according to a research I read just last week – for people who fight for themselves to get ahead, they are likely to become more successful. Why, the research did not say. But if you look at Singapore’s system, you get a contextual idea.
First, there is of course preferential treatment for those link to the ruling elites (those whom we call white horses, for example). But we also know anecdotally that those who ‘made it’ through their belief of their own “self-reliance” are more likely to think that they have done it through their own means, and therefore some (not all) would judge that if others cannot ‘make it’, it is because they did not try hard enough.
But to take the view that others did not try hard enough might be unfair in a system that is rigged for the elite class (though there are people who really do ‘make it’ through their own hard work). Such an entrenchment of a view based on the self-centre can also result in the designing of the system which favours rewarding those who have ‘made it’ – a self-perpetuating loop. It means ‘better’ schools created for those who study ‘better’ and ‘better’ pay for those who ‘make it’.
And this makes the system more and more unequal.
Indeed, a study that was done showed that the more unequal a country is, the more likely people are to take a more “self-enhanced” view of themselves. And this has indeed happened in Singapore – Singapore is today the most unequal country among the developed countries and Singaporeans are also more likely to believe that they are better than someone else.
The pitfalls of a system that advocates “self-reliance” is that it makes people fight over one another, it makes people believe that they are better than someone else and that another person is not as good or not good enough. It makes people judgemental and it makes people selfish. It also entrenches such an unequal system as people who ‘make it’ to the top and who also become government administrators develop the system further to reward those who have ‘made it’. This keeps the system in a cyclical loop which entrenches the inequality and self-centred mentality, and judgementality.
And as research has shown, with Singapore’s status as the most unequal among the developed countries, we also have very high levels of distrust. Unequal countries also have higher rates of mental health and crime, as people are forced to fend for themselves. The anger on the streets and the honking of the cars in Singapore is also symptomatic of the mental stress and frustrations that Singaporeans increasingly face.
Inequality has negative social consequences. And as such, so does “self-reliance”.
But does “self-reliance” and “equality” have to be mutually exclusive? It does not have to be.
One reason why “self-reliance” has become a problem in Singapore is because of how the system became engineered to be one that is unequal. As I mentioned above, where wages are depressed for the low- and middle-income, while prices across the board are increased, you have to fight to become among the top economic tier in Singapore to be able to adequately “self-reliant”. For the rest, it is difficult or impossible to be “self-reliant” at all.
This is where the politics played by the PAP rear its ugly head. On the one hand, the PAP says that it wants people to be “self-reliant”, but on the other it does not allow people to earn enough to be “self-reliant”. For some people, they believe that such a hypocrisy between ideology and practice is by design. First, some believe that the PAP in wanting to allow the elite class among them to get ahead, they have changed the system to benefit themselves, to let them to ‘get ahead’, to go to the ‘better’ schools, to get the ‘better’ jobs, to get ‘better’ pay.
Second, some believe that because the PAP also owns the largest companies in Singapore, the latter would want to increase prices and depress wages to earn higher profits, so as to allow themselves – whom they have put themselves in leadership positions in these companies – to earn higher pay and allow (at least) themselves to be “self-reliant”. This does not mean that do not subscribe to the notion of “self-reliance” but as the practice has shown, people who thread along this logic also have a tendency to first and foremost think of their own self-interests and to reward their efforts first. But in doing so, this reduces the share that others get downstream.
It also means that the political elites would therefore craft policies which would allow themselves to be “self-reliant” but inadvertently makes it difficult for others to do so. Yet, to assuage their conscience, they would develop the notion that people who are poor are poor because they do not work hard enough for it – this again backed up by research.
As a result, the policy makers among them would then make the calculations on how much minimally people need to be “self-reliant” and therefore give that little back in social assistance to Singaporeans. This is why Singaporeans on ComCare (social welfare) are only given S$350 every month (and only if they absolutely have no job and live in low-income housing). This is also why only the poorest 20% to 30% of elderly Singaporeans are only given S$100 to S$250 every month in supplementary public pension, because this is how the policy makers from the political elite believes is what the low-income deserve – the very minimal amount for “self-reliance” and if this is still not enough, it must be, it is believed, because these people do not work hard enough. (As a gauge, it has been estimated that Singaporeans would need to earn between S$1,500 and S$2,000 to minimally have a basic standard of living.)
But the fundamental reason as to why social assistance is not enough? People aren’t paid enough in the first place. And also, where the system pays unequally for the well-off to be paid too much while the low-income are paid too little, the lopsidedness drives up prices, fuels the poverty at the lower spectrum and which low taxes therefore mean low social assistance for the poor and middle-income which thereby exacerbates the income inequality further.
So all these are interconnected.
And of course, the “self-reliance” mentality has created self-perpetuating policies that further widen the rich-poor gap.
But is it “self-reliance” that is the pitfall for the unequal system? Yes and no. It has perhaps become the scapegoat to be blamed upon.
On the one hand, “self-reliance” causes people to fight for themselves against one another and makes them more selfish and judgemental. But this struggle also resulted because of an education system in Singapore that became more segregated by academic distinction, as well as an income disparity that became wider and wider by policy rigging. With prices that shot up, all these combined, forces people to learn to think selfishly for themselves so as to stay ahead of others, and so as to be “self-reliant”. If they do not fight for themselves, they cannot be “self-reliant” – so if you buy into the PAP’s logic, you will practice such behaviour.
What then is another way to look at the equation? – Equality.
Assuming that in the 1980s, if wages continued to increase at healthy levels and where healthcare costs, university fees and HDB flat prices were not sharply increased, Singaporeans would be earning adequate wages to sufficiently fund their healthcare, education, housing and retirement needs (if CPF interest rates were also not driven down) and “self-rely” on themselves. In this way, Singapore would have developed our own basic income model where everyone would be paid adequately to fund their own expenses without the need for high government social spending (assuming people who are unemployed also receive unemployment benefits).
On top of that, if the education system did not become as segregated into the different academic streams and if we work to reduce the segregation, as well as to bring wages to parity (where the consistent wage increases would have also increased wages for the poor and reduced the rich-poor gap and income inequality), Singapore would have become a much more equal place.
Some people said that Singapore was in our golden period in the 1980s and 1990s. I agree. We had a good economic and social balance at that time but due to what I deem as policy missteps (due in part to greed of the political elite), the balance is lost today and our system has become heavily unequal, undoing the reductions in inequality that Singapore achieved from independence in the 1960s to 1980s.
The resultant effect is that the entrepreneur spirit has also been driven out of Singapore because of high costs and rents, but also because of low wages which in total make risks too high for people to take. An unequal environmental and political fear and the indoctrination of political propaganda has also caused Singaporeans to become too docile and compliant a population to form an entrepreneur core.
Where the Nordic countries reformed their system in the 1990s after the economic crisis to encourage even more entrepreneurship, Singapore went the other way instead. There was reason for then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong to be optimistic that Singapore could have a Swiss standard of living. It did seem that Singapore was supposed to go in that direction.
But a greedy political class which started enabling the economy to benefit themselves and a regressive economic strategy which sank back into the approaches of the 1960s and 1970s, to promote Singapore as a low-cost investment hub (and therefore depressed wages) threw Singapore backwards and which reversed both the social and economic growth in Singapore.
I might have some slight sympathy for Goh Chok Tong when he cried out on his Facebook a few years ago that Singapore needs to reduce its inequality. Is it a sign that he acknowledges that the Singapore that he had oversaw in the 1990s is unravelling in front of his very own eyes? I would like to think that he would have the hindsight to recognise it, and is worried about the country’s long term progress, or regression, if we could call it so.
When a NASA-funded study explained that unequal societies eventually fall apart because of worsening poverty and a political class which are immuned to the growing social and economic problems until it is too late when the problems hit them in the face, and there is very little else they can do to undo the situation, I am inclined to believe that this is what is going to happen to Singapore.
Some people might not believe it, especially for those who support the PAP and the political elites among the PAP. I do not know, for I am not a psychic. But do I think the growing poverty is a problem? Yes, I do. Do I think the lack of local companies to ground Singapore’s economy on, due to the high costs of entrepreneurship, is a problem? Yes, I do. Do I think the dwindling consumption ability of Singaporeans is a problem, as it reduces domestic consumption and economic growth? Yes, I do.
But on the other end of the equation, the PAP government and its supporters believe that Singapore’s GDP is high and that should be celebrated in spite of the comparative low wages and share of GDP that actually go back to Singaporeans. They also believe that they have amassed a high amount of reserves from the savings (and CPF) of Singaporeans and this would tide the political elite through ruling Singapore and that is fine, even if Singaporeans are the ones to shoulder the burden with the inability to save enough for consumption and retirement, and whom many have to work until their deaths to pay for the national debt. Of course, the political elite have paid themselves high enough salaries to be immuned to the worries of the common man and are therefore able to blame Singaporeans as being lazy. Make more money to sustain my self-reliance, you ungrateful peasants, they almost seem to say. Does this only confirm what the NASA-funded study have found? I would like to think so. Therefore my prognosis of Singapore is not a good one at its current development.
For the PAP, it would like to think that for those of us who advocate for equality, or who speak up or protest on related issues, such as on the lack of transparency on the government’s management of the CPF, that we are troublemakers or that we are seeking to unravel the wealth that they have created for themselves.
Well, for me, I do want to fight to reduce their wealth, because of the arguments that I had laid out above. Singapore’s high inequality and a political elite which rewards themselves while punishing the majority of Singaporeans is simply not a sustainable model to govern Singapore, both economically and socially – and which will eventually turn around and bite the political elite in their own bums. Research has already shown that worsening inequality reduces economic growth.
As I was discussing with a friend yesterday (and which started the impetus for this article), there are fundamentally different approaches on how to fight and what to fight for, for people who believe in the PAP’s ideology of self-reliance versus that of those who believe in greater equality.
On the former, people who fight to be self-reliant are fighting for themselves, against others, so that they can get ahead and strive for themselves. In a system which is narrow at the top, few succeed while the rest languish.
For those who fight for equality, we fight for the masses (or so we would like to believe). We fight together and for everyone, for more redistributive policies and greater equality in wage distribution and resource access, so that everyone can get ahead – so that the level-playing field is made more equal and everyone gets a chance to get ahead and succeed together. This is at least what we hope to achieve.
Is this dangerous? Perhaps it is, to the political elite who see their political power and wealth threatened.
But it would benefit the greater population, and not only that, would be a more sustainable economic and social solution for society and the country.
Does such a model already exists? It does – the Nordic countries and to some extent, Western Europe, Japan and Taiwan exemplify such a model.
In the end, in a country as Singapore which has a democratic structure (but hijacked by authoritarian rule), change in Singapore will be determined by those whom have been bought over by the PAP’s ideology of self-reliance vis-a-vis those who believe in equality for all.
But the main impediment is the fear by those aligned to the PAP that they would lose what they believe they have fought for, and for the rest that they would lose what they never had in the first place – protection for healthcare, education and retirement etc – and the fear that causes them to lose their ability to envisage a different form of society, or a more equal one. It is also the fear that the ruling elites have that they cannot manage a reformist change that they fear would bring them out of power (and their wealth) that makes them too fearful to change.
To that end, as long as the PAP continues to make regular persecutions against Singaporeans who dare to envision a different form of future, this the PAP believes will act as the necessary impetus to continue to sustain the fear among Singaporeans.
In Singapore, fear is the mother of all of our problems. And if there is a lesson for the world to learn, it is that an obsessive-compulsive Virgo-perfectionist(-Lee Kuan Yew) desire to control will only stifle your populace which in the short term consolidates your power but in the longer term prohibits change and will result in lower economic growth, and your own wealth and the eventual downfall of your power. Democracy is not just an ideal because it is a hip Western concept. The West dealt with different models of governance before they finally stumbled back onto democracy which was used by ancient Greece. Problem with the West is that they seem to believe that democracy is their idea to own that it has turned the rest of the world away from it, partly due to the rest having corrupt leaders and still undergoing their own evolution of governance. It does not help that the West also practices hypocrisy in the democracy and human rights that they preach which does not lend credibility to democracy as a governing fundamental.
But there will come a time in Singapore when the balance is tipped, either when a confluence of factors – the PAP’s growing ineffectual governance, growing poverty and economic woes, and the resultant reduced fears – come together to force Singaporeans to decide to vote for calibrated change, or when the inequality in the system bogs it down to the extent that the system collapses on itself.
Only time will tell how Singapore will shape or if an enlightened leader will also emerge to bring about the change so urgently required for Singapore right now. SG50 was the turning point opportunity that looks set to be squandered away.
But “self-reliance” or not, this was never really the issue. A political elite which has become greedy and hijacked government for its own purposes has created the facade of “self-reliance”, and a compliant populace who have become complicit in their unwavering adherence to this ideological concept further entrenches the political elite’s hold onto power and the worsening inequality, and its economic and social effects further consolidating the elite’s power is what has taken root in Singapore.
Singapore’s future requires Singaporeans – the government and the people together – to take a good, hard and honest look at the situation and to decide for themselves that if they want a more economically and socially sustainable future, what steps they are willing to take to achieve it and to protect this place that they call home, if it is still what it is.
(This post was originally written as a Facebook post but it got too long, so I decided to publish it on my blog instead.)